The ‘B’ in Blockchain Doesn’t Actually Stand for Bitcoin

February 15, 2021

Written by Ryan Szporer
Blockchain with Bitcoin logo
CATEGORY: Exclusives

Apart from a recent dip in price, Bitcoin is arguably on a path to reach unprecedented levels. So is blockchain in terms of its ubiquity as a technology, but for a vastly different reason.

Linking the Supply Chain with Blockchain

Rightly or wrongly, many see Bitcoin as a safe haven in times of economic turmoil. In contrast, blockchain is effectively what gives the holders of the cryptocurrency that sense of security, which is undeniably justified from a technological standpoint.

“Conflating blockchain with bitcoin is a bit like confusing email and the internet. It’s just one aspect and in a way it gives blockchain an unsavoury, speculative reputation,” said independent Policy Consultant Paul Ulrich, who described blockchain as a tamper-resistant system through which changes to files, for example, can be made, but with every modification being recorded.

A form of a distributed ledger technology (DLT), blockchain has applications in finance (and cryptocurrency) because of its resistance to tampering. However, that’s just a drop in the bucket. Speaking to 6GWorldTM, Akshay Sharma, CTO at smart-city solutions provider LB-N, highlighted several other blockchain features. In particular he emphasised the key role that consensus algorithms and decentralised architecture play in enforcing digital rights for content, privacy rights for people, and agreements between businesses.

“It’s immutable, meaning everything is under guard permanently,” he said. “There’s already a payment mechanism, but it doesn’t have to be currency. It could be tokens. It could be rewards. It could be some other monetisation mechanism that’s in the blockchain system.”

Sharma described how, as a result, blockchain can be deployed with the entire supply chain in mind, citing Walmart as an example. The company uses blockchain to track and trace the origins of lettuce in case of an outbreak of E.coli. It makes sense from the customers’ point of view, but also logistically and financially.

“So, let’s say there’s a recall and somebody gets sick, you don’t have to recall all the lettuce in the entire world or in the entire Walmart system. You can just track and trace that it was one shipper with the wrong temperature or wrong refrigeration that caused it to go bad and recall that shipment. It leads to more granular control with distributed databases,” Sharma said.

Sharma also brought up the notion of “holistic trust,” an improvement over what he sees as today’s generally reactive digital security, leading to a slew of new blockchain applications. For example, the ID2020 Alliance seeks to give people without official documentation digital, legal identities instead.

As an illustration of the hypothetical value of such a solution, Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, an ID2020 Alliance contributor, independently suggested digital certificates would be one way out of the current pandemic. In essence, they would offer proof of vaccination, enabling greater freedom to go about one’s day-to-day business.

To be clear, Gates was speaking generally. The suggestion was in no way a reference to ID2020, which has become embroiled in ethical disputes. For example, an ID2020 adviser resigned in response to the possible enabling of blockchain-enabled immunity passports due to privacy concerns.

Tip the Farmer, Not the Cow

A separate blockchain-adjacent project, the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Data for Common Purpose Initiative (DCPI) meanwhile actively seeks to “permission” data. Project Lead Nadia Hewett, who doubles as the WEF Project Lead for Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology, recently spoke to 6GWorld.

Hewett explained that the core idea behind DCPI, which includes several blockchain companies as partners, is to let one’s data be used for some causes and not others. According to Hewett, blockchain’s “unique privacy-preserving features” are needed for the data sharing at the heart of the initiative, including the incentivisation aspect which ensures providers get paid.

“How do I as an individual, when I have given permission, how do I get recognised? How do I get value? How do I get compensated? I think they are starting to understand blockchain’s ability to allow for differentiated positioning of data and blockchain’s role in data models of the future, because it allows for permissioning to take place,” she said, going on to describe the concept of connecting to and affecting participants through the value chain.

“It means that the farmer can now be connected more directly to the consumer. So, if you’re a consumer in the store and you’re buying an apple, with blockchain you [would be able to] understand how organic [it is] and [connect] with the farmer and sort of ‘tip the farmer,’” she explained.

Going a step further and using farming as an example of how blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT) could merge, Karl Weaver, Global Business Development Director of the Blockchain of AI Things (BoAT) at aitos.io, also spoke to 6GWorld. He described BoAT, their own term, as a software development kit that he believes will become a de facto solution in the IoT world.

“The goal really is to integrate cellular IoT modules with the blockchain, but the major reason to do that is for trust, because lots of IoT modules still do not have the trust of that data coming from the edge,” he said. “Some of the stakeholders involved in the technology may want to fudge the numbers, because they have to adhere to banking regulations, insurance-company regulations, because they’re a business, right? And they’ve got all these sensors out in the field collecting information and data. What happens if all the information and data shows that your yield for your cow or dairy farm or your romaine lettuce stock is tainted with this or tainted with that?”

Weaver readily acknowledged the two technologies are apples and oranges for all intents and purposes. However, his argument is there’s synergy there to be leveraged, referring to the 2008 milk scandal in China, where milk tainted with a toxic compound led to hundreds of thousands of babies getting sick.

“The data is sent directly into a secure enclave[…] and stored there, waiting for other instructions. The other instructions are normally to send the other data into the cloud via 4G or narrowband IoT,” he said. “You can’t hack a secure enclave. You can try to have a man-in-the-middle attack, but it’s very, very difficult at the edge in the field. Remember, this IoT module was around the cow’s neck… We make it much more difficult.”

The Future of Blockchain

The security element is the one constant in each of blockchain’s many potential applications. Whereas the surge in the price of Bitcoin is seen as unsustainable, blockchain’s versatility has it sticking around for the long haul. While Weaver used 4G in the example, he said BoAT doesn’t depend on the IoT module in question being 4G, 5G, or even 6G. He said the integration of IoT with blockchain can in principle apply to all mobile network operators, which is fortuitous with 6G projected to enable a connection density of devices 10 times higher than 5G.

Ulrich confirmed the sentiment, saying there is an increased need for encryption due to the boom in IoT. He called blockchain’s capacity to encrypt a strong one, for current requirements anyway.

“It’s state-of-the-art right now, which again could become obsolete and then you’d have to use quantum encryption techniques [which are potentially years away] to protect data, but computing power and standardisation of protocols are issues because there will be massive [IoT]. So, a lot of computing will be at the edge of the network on very small devices,” he said, adding that any encryption solution would have to overcome hurdles such as energy use and bandwidth limitations as a result.

Marco Giordani, of the University of Padova’s Department of Information Engineering, suggested blockchain has a future in 6G. He made the point as part of a presentation entitled “Toward 6G Networks: Use Cases and Technologies,” hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Vehicular Technology Society.

“It’s a solution to guarantee transparency and anonymity; and [for] blockchain to be enabled we have a huge amount of data to be processed, and that’s where 6G is headed,” he said. “We also need to provide an elevated security standard, through quantum computation or other types of innovations that 6G will develop in the next decade.

“I think that both blockchain and quantum computing are technologies that will have very good activity within the 6G timeframe,” he added. “There are several research activities that are being kept separate while, instead, it would be good to integrate the use of these two technologies together, but I definitely see both of them as promising and good research opportunities in the future.”

Feature image courtesy of TheDigitalArtist (via pixabay).

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